Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Miller's "The Passion of Michel Foucault": Book Review

When this critique appeared in 1993, it aroused controversy for its exploration of the S/M subculture that tangled itself with this French philosopher's entry into the hidden intersections of power with knowledge, the forced opening of what politics and the State occluded. I found it illuminating. I admired Miller's ambitions to combine an explanation of Foucault's formidably challenging thought with his personal quest to break free of convention by Nietzchean "limit-experiences." 

Miller's at his best when elucidating breakthrough studies such as "Discipline and Punish," and to show its shortcomings as well as successes: "a characteristic blend of nuanced analyses, authoritative references, and abundant documentation-- combined with fabulous images, bald assertions, and wild generalizations." (210) As for this work's reception by enraptured intellectuals in the 1970s, his audience sought "a critique of modern culture and society that avoided both the cruel materialism of orthodox Marxism and the conservative empiricism of most mainstream social science." (234) Yet, the book remained slippery, its archival sources limited, its claims bold. For Miller, he relates "the disturbing character of Foucault's critical perspective--hard to pin down, easy to feel." (235)
Miller shows the dangers of Foucault's approach as well as its successes, as with his acclaim initially for Khomeini's Iranian revolution. As with its secular French predecessor and then Mao's own campaigns, the tragedies caused sobered later observers, once the fervor subsided and the rhetoric dimmed. While Miller movingly recounts Foucault's LSD-inspired ecstasy in Death Valley and his approval of such means to an end, he also shows the predicament of one who entered the leather S/M culture of the City to his own peril.

Beyond "the fascism in us all," the forces that pinned down our own human potential for liberation from systems that crush our ideals and thwart our actions, those that celebrate power that suppresses hopes, Miller paraphrases the final mission of a post-Marxist Foucault: "the objective remained to rout the hostile powers pinning down the powers of the individual, somehow redeploying these powers without surrendering to the archaic phantasms that had infiltrated our speech and our acts, our hearts and our deepest, most unconscious desires, functioning as the most sinister type of fifth column." (244) 

In his sexual quest, Foucault sought in San Francisco's bathhouse scene a simalacrum of this wider pursuit. As Miller phrases it, to "perhaps even 'scratch' deeply enough to obliterate, however temporarily, 'the imprinted script of many millennia.'" (284) In summary, Foucault as he noted in 1982, shortly before his death, sums up a journey all of his readers might take: "The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning." (328)

While the narrative does wander about, and stretches of Foucault's personal life appear to be obscured under the research he conducted, you do get a survey of about every French (and often German) intellectual who mattered, for the past century, as many leading thinkers, directly or indirectly, intersected with and influenced Foucault. Miller explains well what Foucault took from his predecessors and contemporaries, even if Foucault's story gets alternately highlighted and diminished, at least in Miller's take on him: this is far more a critical study than a straightforward biography. 

Miller's postscript notes how his own endeavor, among many on the "progressive" left, was met with skepticism, as many supposedly tolerant types canonized Foucault as if a gay martyr, a patron saint. Miller refreshingly counters how, true to his subject, this study of Foucault prefers truth over assumption. He challenged "nearly everything that passes for 'right' in Western culture, including that upheld by so many of his disciples among the academic American left." This sort of slant, for me, enlivened and energizes this study.
(Posted to Amazon US 9-3-11)

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